Studies on the effects of pronunciation variants on spoken word recognition have seemingly contradictory results – some find support for a lexical representation that contains a frequent variant, others, an infrequent (but idealized) variant. We argue that this paradox is resolved by appealing to the phonetics of the overall word. In two phoneme categorization studies, we examined the categorization of the initial sounds of words that contain either tap or [t]. Listeners identified the initial sound of items along a voiced-voiceless continuum (e,g, bottom–pottom, produced with word-medial [t] or tap). No preference for word-forming responses for either variant was found. But, a bias toward voiced responses for words with [t] was found. We suggest this reflects a categorization bias dependent on speaking style, and claim that the difference in responses to words with different variants is best attributed to the phonetic composition of the word, not to a particular pronunciation variant.